On October 17th, Kiwis will be heading to the polls to take part in the New Zealand general election, yet it’s not just a new government that they’ll be voting for. This year’s ballot paper will also ask voters whether or not they support the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill, which would create a legally regulated cannabis market in New Zealand.
Marijuana has already been legalised in Uruguay, Canada and 11 US states, yet New Zealand is set to become the first country to allow its citizens to decide on the issue by putting it to a referendum. As such, the event marks a major milestone in global drug policy reform, and a “yes” vote would set a precedent for other nations to follow by giving civilians the power to end the harmful War on Drugs.
What Does The Bill Entail?
The Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill is the result of a promise made by the Green Party following the 2016 general election, when it entered into a confidence and supply agreement with the government on the condition that it granted a referendum on the legalisation of cannabis.
Legalisation differs from decriminalisation in that it allows for the regulated production and sale of cannabis for recreational use. In contrast, decriminalisation merely removes criminal charges for possession, but does not sanction growing or selling marijuana.
A government paper describing the terms of the bill explains that its purpose is to “reduce cannabis-related harm to individuals, families/whanau [a Māori term meaning “extended family”] and communities”.
If passed, the new legislation would allow anyone over the age of 20 to purchase and possess up to 14 grams of cannabis per day for personal use. Each individual will also be entitled to grow two marijuana plants on their property, with a maximum of four plants per household.
Recreational cannabis would be available to purchase from licensed stores, with the government controlling and regulating every stage of the supply chain, as well as setting limits on the potency of marijuana that can be sold. No advertising of cannabis products or online sales will be permitted, and all products will be required to contain harm reduction messaging on their packaging.
Consumption will also be regulated, and will only be allowed in private homes and on licensed premises, which means that smoking on the street will remain illegal. The proposed new law would also prohibit the production of hash at home, stating that only the commercial sale of resin would be allowed.
Why This Is A Good Thing
Legalisation removes many of the harms associated with cannabis use as it allows the authorities to regulate the production and sale of marijuana. As such, the strength and quality of all cannabis products can be properly monitored and controlled. In contrast, illegal weed can only be bought and sold on an unregulated black market, which means that buyers can never be sure what they are getting.
Furthermore, there’s nothing to stop black market dealers from selling cannabis to children, while licensed outlets will only be allowed to sell to customers over the age of 20. According to New Zealand’s Justice Minister Andrew Little, “the primary objective of the legislation is to reduce overall cannabis use and limit the ability of young people to access cannabis.” This makes perfect sense, especially when you consider that the prohibition of weed has done nothing to prevent people from using it.
In fact, an expert panel recently published a report on cannabis use in New Zealand, and found that criminal punishment is completely ineffective at deterring people from using the drug, as 95 percent of people “either continue or increase their cannabis use after arrest or conviction.” With figures like these, it’s hard to see how the War on Drugs can be deemed anything other than a catastrophic failure.
Furthermore, as with many other countries, New Zealand’s enforcement of drug laws has historically been racially skewed, with people of Māori heritage being victimised by police forces. According to the report, “systemic racism in the justice system means that Māori are disproportionately more likely to be arrested, sentenced and convicted for drug offences, including cannabis-related crimes.”
It goes on to estimate that the legalisation of cannabis would result in 1,279 fewer Māori convictions per year.
What Happens If There’s A “Yes” Vote
The referendum is not legally binding, which means that the bill will have to be put to parliament if there is a “yes” majority before it can become enshrined into law. If this happens, it seems more than likely that it will be approved, as the Labour, Green and New Zealand First parties have all agreed to uphold the result of the referendum.
However, any new government could also choose to disregard the result of the referendum altogether. It’s unlikely this would happen, although the National Party has not ruled out doing this if it wins a majority in the general election.
The more clear-cut the referendum result, the harder it will be for any new government to ignore it, which is why it’s so important that every eligible New Zealander votes. There are currently some 60,000 Kiwis residing in the UK, and their vote could potentially tip the balance – so if you’re one of them then make sure you register to vote remotely!